What is a point cloud

A point cloud is a set of data points in some coordinate system.  They can be used to represent a three-dimensional surface or solid object by a collection of its vertices as well as additional information such as surrounding connectivity and color.

The term has no specific meaning, but may refer to either:

A 3D point cloud represents a finite amount of points that have been collected from one or more scanners moving around the subject being scanned.  In other words, it’s just an array of 3D coordinates (X, Y, Z) representing objects’ surfaces.  3D point clouds are usually saved as .ply files. 

An RGB point cloud , also known as a color cloud , stores the X,  Y, Z coordinates of the points along with their red, green, and blue color channels.

2D point clouds represent only 2-coordinate data (X and Y), typically representing a flat surface; 3-coordinate data (X, Y, Z) would store them as full 3D points.  As there is no third dimension to reference an object’s depth like in a 3D point cloud, RGB point clouds are not used for this purpose.

A few types of scanners can be found in use today that collect point clouds: structured light scanners , time of flight scanners , laser range finding sensors , rotary lasers .

Vector data is a very common type of geographical information.  It encompasses the exact coordinates of two-dimensional shapes, typically square areas that are subdivided into smaller square units called pixels.  Vector data can come from a number of sources, including GPS devices and surveys conducted by humans using compasses, total stations , or even 3D scanners . The most common use for vector data is in GIS software.

A point cloud is a set of data points in a coordinate system.  This dataset may be collected by hand through surveying equipment such as a total station or GPS device , or it may be generated by laser scanner . 

 The dataset does not include any colors.  A point cloud will normally be saved as a .laz file.

A typical example of how one might use a point cloud is in creating scale models of real-world objects.  The point cloud data can be used to create a 3D model and export it out to CAD or other popular 3D modeling software for architectural visualization, engineering, product design, and more. Points clouds are also widely used in the field of photogrammetry to determine the structure of an object by taking measurements between features that are visible across multiple images taken from different angles. Once these measurements have been performed, they can then be compiled into dense point clouds which effectively become 3D maps of the area.  These point clouds can then be used to create realistic 3D models of the scanned area.

Another popular use for point clouds is in creating heightmaps and textures that can be imported into a wide variety of games and engines. These heightmaps will typically include data such as terrain elevations, building placements, and water features.  This type of information is used by game developers and graphic designers alike to bring their creations to life more effectively than if they were merely using 2D images or other pre-rendered material. This process is known as procedural generation because the computer program can determine what the end result will look like rather than needing someone to enter every detail manually.

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